By Tiffeny Owens
The Cullman Times
After four years with Opelika’s ETA probation services company, the city of Hanceville agreed Monday to switch to a new company to handle defendants’ installment payments on municipal court cases.
The city council approved hiring Georgia company Freedom Probation Services Monday, however the city will not be charged for its services. Freedom will collect a $30 monthly fee from defendants who sign up to pay their municipal court cases in installments.
Although Hanceville has only a sixth of the city of Cullman’s population, its municipal court processed 2,559 cases compared to Cullman’s 1,880 cases last year, said Hanceville Municipal Court Clerk Angie Finley. Officials attribute that to having Wallace State Community College in the city.
Hanceville magistrates are averaging 213 cases per month, compared to Cullman magistrates’ 52 cases per month. Hanceville has one full-time and one part-time magistrate while Cullman has three court full-time magistrates, Finley said.
Hanceville has notified ETA of its intention to cut ties by Dec. 25, per its agreement. Defendants’ cases on probation with ETA will be transitioned over to Freedom Probation Services afterwards.
“During that time, we plan to offer an amnesty court where defendants have 30 days to come in to pay the court costs, and the probation fees will be waived,” Finley said.
For example, if a defendant paid $150 on a $300 case and accrued $300 in probation fees, then during the 30-day amnesty period, the defendant will only have to pay the $150 case balance.
Finley said the court has struggled to get information out of ETA on how much it is collecting from defendants for probation services versus how much it is applying to defendants’ cases. Of the municipal court’s 937 cases, the city is only receiving payments on 97 through the company, with 471 cases open without a warrant served for non-payment, Finley said.
With the new company, the city can go online and view a breakdown of the costs each defendant pays, with 70 percent of a payment going to the court and 30 percent retained by Freedom Probation Services. Warrants for non-payment will also be issued as “failure to pay,” not “failure to appear,” unless a defendant misses a court date.
“I like this because it has that safeguard for us on warrants because in the past we’ve had situations where a warrant was supposed to be recalled because someone paid and then our police arrested someone on a bad warrant,” said Mayor Kenneth Nail. “That wasn’t the police officer’s fault, but there’s no excuse for that. Our officers aren’t supposed to be working as a collection agency.”
Freedom probation services will have an office in Hanceville at the JoAnn Walls Center that will be open five days a week to process payments. Previously, defendants could only pay ETA in person in Hancevillle one day a week or on court days.
Councilman Charles Wilson said having an office in town open five days a week as another benefit to the switch.
“We didn’t get these people in this situation, but we don’t need to penalize them anymore than they already are,” Wilson said. “We need to try to help them through this as best we can.”
* Tiffeny Owens can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 256-734-2131, ext. 135.